25-year-old model Sophia Cavall has a seemingly nice life walking the runway until she begins to receive death threats through social media and is almost kidnapped by a masked figure. She tries to fight off her assailant, but luckily the attempt ends in failure when mysterious business magnate Oliver Black intervenes.
Sophie doesn’t know it, but the stakes are high: her life and her heart. Desperately needing support, she turns to a few trusted people, and to Oliver most of all. But can he be trusted, who speaks the truth, and the question on everyone’s lips: who is the man in the mask?
Her checkered past returns to entangle her. She will come to realize that it is not dead after all…it is still very much alive.
A Diamond in the Rough is a love story, a thriller, funny in parts and moving in others. Most of all, it is a gripping debut novel that will have you guessing and turning pages until you reach the end.
Please note that this is a sample chapter intended for preview purposes only.
THE DAY BEGINS like any other; only this day, I wake up wishing it were already over.
Sitting bleary-eyed and comatose, I watch as the knife and fork mark the passing of time on the kitchen clock. The spoon pendulum swings sideways, tick and tock, back and forth, slow and gradual. It’s a little before sunrise. The sky is leaking a gush of rain so fatal I can’t tell if the din is coming from the rain’s friction with the air as it falls or its collision with each surface, or both. The streets are already dotted by umbrellas—people swerving in and out among each other, getting into cabs, shopping the coffee stores, gabbing on their hi-tech cell phones…all before the sun has crept up behind the imperious buildings of Manhattan, before I’ve even finished eating a bowl of Cheerios. These people are relentlessly compelled by the need to accomplish their goals.
What am I doing? I ask myself all the time.
“Item not sold,” reads the online auction listing for a “pre-owned Valentino evening dress.” A question mark hovers over my financial future. The image of only two eggs in the refrigerator and bills stacked precariously like a house of cards pops up in my mind’s eye. I stare at my laptop screen, push my golden hair back as I wonder about my life, and sigh. I look left. I look right. I look up; then I look down. Idle fingers poised over the keyboard, I’m begging my brain to please come up with an idea.
I hit the delete key for the item description and instead type “one of a kind runway Valentino dress.”
About to dump a spoonful of cereal into my mouth, I discover a weevil-like black pest bathing in the milk and a second one lazing on a Cheerio. I nearly choke. The sun is barely out and already there are all sorts of hints that the day will be a litany of nuisances. And that’s when an icon flashes on the screen, alerting me to a social media notification. I hunch over the table, forgetting all ideas of proper posture, and click on the link that takes me to a tweet that’s been posted.
Enjoy your days. They are numbered.
I jerk up straight, my eyes fluttering open. I move my face closer to the laptop screen and scan the words meticulously as though I read wrong. I read it again, twice, thrice, and by the fourth time reality sinks in. Another threat.
A pigeon startles me as it swoops into view, roosting on the exterior windowsill. The pigeon starts tapping its tiny beak at the window, cooing at me, weakly fluttering its wings. Gobs of feathers fall from its body, exposing fresh wounds.
It looks hungry and sick. I go to the window, stretch out my hand, and scatter crumbs of Cheerios at its feet. The pigeon stares at me with its buggy eyes, then walks a bit closer, partly injured, partly frightened, testing if I pose a threat. Before the sick-looking pigeon has any chance to muster some courage, a healthy, more gallant pigeon with its chest puffed out whooshes in and fiercely digs its beak into the feeble bird.
It takes me far too long to react.
“Hey!” I pound at the window. “Stop it!” The snooty pigeon looks like it doesn’t have to be anywhere and people don’t impress it, much less scare it. It takes its time to peck at each and every last crumb.
I watch the pigeon take to the air a tyrant and a conqueror, the anemic pigeon having departed first.
“What?” I grumble, turning around. I look beyond the little nook of a kitchenette to the living room where Jess, my roommate, is all dolled up in a bright yellow cable-knit sweater, navy pants, and matching pumps. Her hair, dark brown and styled in loose waves, plays around her lanky shoulders. I wonder what time she woke up.
“What are you doing in here?” A girlish grin spreads across her rosy cheeks. “I heard a loud noise.” I watch her graceful steps as she walks into the kitchen.
“Nothing.” I close my laptop, dump the bowl of cereal in the sink, and rub a sponge along the inside.
I sigh, finding it difficult to construct my sentences. Dishes clink and clank against each other. “It was just a stupid bird.”
“Yes.” I turn off the faucet. “A pigeon.”
I wipe my hands dry with a towel. “Are you going to keep repeating everything I say?”
She takes the last two eggs from the chicken-shaped basket and warily straps on latex gloves. “Well, you’re not making any sense. Not that you ever do. It looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today.”
“Or maybe just the regular side of the bed.”
After she washes each egg in the sink—she read somewhere that eggshells are exposed to salmonella—she cracks them on the edge of the pan, lets them sit for a second while disposing of the shells in the waste bin, then begins stirring them with a whisk.
“I’m glad to see your sense of humor is intact, Sophie. Really, I am. But you’re always being way too hard on yourself. It’s a new day. You’re alive. Be happy.”
I stare at her for a second or two, my face a mask of cynicism. “Happy doesn’t work for some people. I happen to be one of them.”
“Not making sense again,” she says in a mock-cheerful lilt.
I look inside the refrigerator, grab a pudding cup, and pop the lid off.
“All right. Let’s pretend I’m so incredibly happy my brain is thinking about rainbows and butterflies and I’m waving good morning to the mailman. I let my guard down. Next thing I know, something takes a dark turn. But I don’t even realize it because I’m over here staring at a bright patch of happy light. All of a sudden, I’ve fallen into a hole and have no rope, no ladder, and the walls are too slippery to climb out of. Happiness makes me lose focus. It makes me weak. I can’t stand it. Does that make sense to you now?”
Jess looks like I’ve just told her Santa isn’t real. “That makes no sense to me.”
“Predators prey on people with weaknesses. Notice, I’m not dead.”
“That argument is weak,” she counters. “Happiness does not equate to weakness. No one wants to be miserable or unhappy, Sophie, and misery is a choice you get to make.”
I shovel a spoon into the pudding cup, then my mouth. “Well, that does it. I am a miserable person who also happens to have a self-belittling sense of humor.” I let out a huge breath and sit on a stool at the breakfast bar; there’s a twitching of my eyelids and my head wants to fall forward.
“You’re miserable because you’re scared,” she says.
“Scared of what?”
“For starters, don’t you have that big show today? That’s something pretty terrifying, if you ask me.”
I blink. Hilarity almost escapes, but I push it back. “I can assure you the fears I struggle with are deeper. But, now that you bring up my fabulous line of work, let me just say the thought of it alone makes me want to rip my eyes out and feed them to the crows.”
Jess stares at me bewildered while I keep eating my pudding in complete silence. “I can imagine. It’s a tough business. Huge competition all the way. Lots of demands. Massive pressure. Trust me, I get it.”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
“I know I’m not in your position and I’m not you, but I promise you can talk to me and I’ll try to understand.”
“It’s six thirty in the morning. I don’t have anything exciting to say other than I have to take a shower.”
She smiles, rolling her eyes, and gets a plate from the impeccably tidy stack inside the cupboards. Like clockwork, her eyebrows start to furrow and her lips twitch as she inspects every stray blotch on that plate.
“Jess,” I say her name carefully, as if she’s a kid whose full attention I need, “you know the meth addict next door, Huang? He got arrested again last night. Honestly, I don’t know what the cops are doing anymore.”
She sighs. “Nice try to distract me. There are water spots on this plate. This wasn’t my doing.”
“I mean, what do the police expect is going to happen here? What is their plan? Are they going to cut him loose again?”
“Sophie!” she pouts. “You know I can’t have water spots on plates. I’ve told you before, don’t leave the plates on the drying rack. Dry them with a clean dish towel.”
When dealing with matters of, or related to, filth or germs, Jess isn’t easily distracted. She becomes hinged to the matter itself. “I’m sorry. Take it easy,” I say. “I’m sure that whatever spot you see is not going to threaten your health.”
“Do you even hear yourself?” She sinks the plate under running dishwater and gets another one from the stack. “Because if that’s the way you think the ball bounces around here, then you’re in for a real surprise when, ten years down the road, your body is so plagued with dirt, and germs, and dust, and other disgusting pathogens, that it can no longer repair itself!”
I sigh the sigh of one who has survived destruction. “Jessica, you’re alive. Be happy. I’ll clean, disinfect, and dry the dishes.”
“Thank you.” She settles herself down. “Anyway, you remember about stopping by my class one of these days? You know, for career week? It’s going to be so great to have you as a speaker.”
I lean against the stool’s back cushion, digging through the remnants in the pudding cup. “I’m not good with kids. Why do you want me to go?”
Tilting the pan, she slides the eggs onto a dish she has deemed clean and sits on a stool next to me. “Let me tell you about some gifted people who were the highlight of last year’s career week. Mr. Sanchez, a computer systems analyst. Poor guy looked like he hadn’t showered in days. And he smelled funny. Then there was Mr. Knipple. That’s right, Knipple, with a silent K. He’s a pastor for Pete’s sake! There has to be some sort of sin involved in saying Pastor Knipple! The kids kept saying his name just so they could get a good laugh. Oh, and last but not least…Mr. Harper, world’s legendary diener. His words, not mine.”
“A diener? Imagine the children’s faces when Mr. Harper open-mindedly explained how handling corpses at the city morgue is his everyday business. The guy specializes in detaching a corpse’s organs. Seriously, who wants to grow up and be a diener?”
“I don’t know, maybe someone does. It must have its perks.”
“What? Going through some fat guy’s dead body? Oh yeah, I’m sure kids all over the world are lining up for that as we speak and parents are full-on supporting their children.”
“Well, parents sometimes don’t know what’s best for their children. Big deal. It’s a respectable profession, Jess. Give it a rest.”
She lifts a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Can’t we agree on something for once? I don’t even get your logic. And speaking of things I don’t get, what’s that you’re eating like a five year old?”
I look at the label sticker on the cup. “Creamy milk chocolate pudding. Good source of calcium, vitamin A and D—”
“Who on God’s good earth eats chocolate pudding for breakfast?”
I scrape the bottom of the cup, leaving no chocolate behind. “People who like pudding. Oh, and look what it says here.” I point at the sticker and turn the cup so she can see. “Great for lunches or anytime.”
One hand on her hip, Jess looks at me like I’m being an unbearable child. I shoot the empty cup into a trash bin some two yards away.
“Okay listen,” she says as she pokes at the eggs and takes a bite, “the thing about career week is that I want you to be there.”
“Yeah, but why? I walk around in bathing suits for a living. I’m not out refreezing the North Pole.”
“There are about seven boys in my class. The rest are girls. It occurs to me that the girls need a female influence, a successful, encouraging one too.”
“Great. So why don’t you call the First Lady?”
“Sophie, stop with the jokes for a second. I’m not asking you to go because you’re a model, I’m asking you to go because you’re smart as a whip and I know you’ll give a good talk.”
“Fine.” Wrinkles of worry stretch from the end of my brows to my forehead. I head toward the bathroom for that shower. “I’ll be there.”
I shift my tone to a stronger one. “I’m not hoping to die and stick a needle in my eye. I’ll be there.”
WHY ON EARTH did I just agree to that? Why did I tell her I’d be there?
As I’m riding the elevator of the New Yorker Hotel, I tell myself I can’t be blamed for telling Jess I will do such a thing when I don’t want to. Only the most callous of people can be so honest. I should see it on an objective level and, however annoying, or intolerable, I will go to her class and do this for her.
The bell dings and the doors to the fourth floor open up.
I feel like a deer caught in bright headlights as I search for the whiny female voice calling me out. I’m assuming it’s my agent, Kim Price, since she’s virtually the only person in the world who feels the need to call me by my last name. She says it sounds cheekier. I look past the rows of lighted vanity stations and semi-naked girls and see Kim walking to me like I’m her prey. Reminding myself that I don’t want to be dead prey, I look at her intently, very puffed up all of a sudden. She’s slim, and young, dresses like she lives in a haute couture house, and her ginger bob cut drops straight down. It was always her dream to be a model, and there’s no doubt to her beauty, but height-wise she falls short.
“Well, there you are, my dearest shining star, triple-dipped in unpunctuality! Where have you been? And what happened, why the hell are you soaked?”
“Have you been outside? It’s raining cats and dogs out there.”
“So? Use an umbrella like the rest of us, dammit!” she yells. Her fiery green irises sparkle. “What’d I tell you about coming in early today? You know business is looking bad, Cavall. You need this. I sure as shit need this. Bookings are close to dead, so you better grace the runway like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Ha! Not for what they’re paying me.”
I walk around her, but she tugs my arm and blocks my way. “What has gotten into you? The days where you actually get to choose what to do are over. Your glory days are gone. Look around you! Look at all these young girls fresh out of grade school. You think they won’t replace you? Think again! This is a hard industry. Always evolving, always changing, new girls, fresh looks…the newest fashion trend…it’s what keeps it going! If it’s not going, it’s not working. If you’re not going, you’re not working. Are you following me here?”
“Yes, I know where I work. Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because maybe you oughta remember…” she comes closer so as not to let other people hear, “who you are. You are a coat rack. A coat rack who happens to be walking on thin ice. A coat rack who happens to be in debt to me and the company she works for. Tick tock, Cavall. That’s the sound of your days as a model coming to an end.”
“Coat racks look nice, and thin, and it all comes down to the beautiful clothes hanging on them.”
“Coat racks don’t talk back, either. They just listen. You do what I tell you to do. No screw-ups.”
Instantly I start questioning myself. Will I be sent to the coat rack junkyard—along with all those other coat racks who have tried and failed, after an arm breaks, after a leg breaks? After I’ve become old, overweight, and damaged?
“Cavall!” she reproofs as I look away. “Did you hear what I just said?”
I can hear Kim perfectly, but my ability to stray from a subject is also impeccable.
“Your phone is ringing,” I tell her.
She pats her pockets, then answers the phone, addressing the person like he or she is too deaf, or too stupid, to follow instructions. Her voice slowly becomes muffled as I sink into myself, wondering why I have to put careful consideration into what I say or do, try to blend in with other human beings, but Kim just opens her mouth in an unhealthy way.
“Come on, Cavall! Get moving! Look alive!” She snaps her fingers. “And somebody get her a towel for crying out loud!”
I collapse into an unoccupied vanity station with twinkly light bulbs around the mirror. Tina, my usual hair and makeup assistant, quickly surrounds me while three people start working on my hair. My hazel eyes look tired, droopy. Rain droplets sprinkle down the little golden hairs on my round forehead. Down, down, down they go. Down my thick eyebrows, down my tapering cheeks, and down my long neck.
“Sophie Cavall!” Tina greets with her usual sass. “Is dat yuh, girl?” The way she talks fast in her unique Jamaican patois always leaves me asking myself what the heck she said.
She lifts my chin to look up at her. “Sophie, duh yuh ’ave a hearin’ prablem?”
She speaks slower. “I seh wen is di lass time yuh slept? Mi a goh fix dem dark circles.” She lightly taps the skin under my eyes. “Dey showing.”
“Oh…yeah.” My head is worked up over her speech. “I’m sorry my skin sucks.”
After finishing priming my skin, she turns around and rummages through her makeup gear. She tips foundation on the back of her hand and pats a brush in it. She buffs the brush on my face.
“So, wat is happ’ning? How is yuh doin’?”
I exhale harshly. “Exhausted.”
“Exhausted? Exhausted fram wat?” she asks, her eyes wide and questioning. “I be half yo’ age! I ’ave two kids, debts up to mi eyeballs, and mi husband just left mi fi some skinny ass, white lil bitch.”
“I didn’t know that…I’m…I’m so sorry.”
“Everyting cool. I be betta without him anyway,” she says uncaringly. “But I be tellin’ yuh a long time…yuh’re a pretty wooman, and yuh ’ave a pretty life. Yuh a lucky, Sophie Cavall! Betta appreciate, doll.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m the luckiest.”
I sit in silence, thinking about my heaven-sent luck for the duration of my beauty boost. When the professionals are done, I get up and shoulder my way through the whirl of tall, thin girls in designer lingerie and dreadfully high heels.
The director runs back and forth, shrieking like a cockatiel as there is a lack of girls ready to form a lineup. “Where are my models?”
I quickly snatch my outfit from its hanger on the clothing racks and slip it over my still rain-chilled skin—a sheer, nude colored babydoll with ruffle details and a black waist tie. A skinny model closes in beside me. She holds a cigarette between her fingers. Eyes closed, head tilted back, she blows bluish smoke slowly through her painted lips and perfect nose.
“Care for a smoke?” she offers.
“Dying for one.” I bum a Marlboro and as I taste the sickly-sweet aroma of burning chemicals and paper, I can’t help but unwind. We can all become addicted to something that can take away our troubles.
The skinny girl inhales the last of her Marlboro and tramples it with the toe of her stiletto. I’m in my little bubble of smoke as she starts explaining that her boyfriend is coming to see the show. I want to shout, “Really? Who cares about you or your boyfriend?” But no, that doesn’t seem like something a kindhearted member of society would say. I internally curse my wandering thoughts and push myself to think of nicer, more civil, casual talk.
“Most models are worried about fat, posing, walking down the runway,” is all I could come up with, “or tripping.”
“Clearly, you don’t know him,” she says. “He makes Liam Neeson look like a wimp.”
“Have you been living under a rock? Liam Neeson. The actor in Taken…you know, the movie? Daughter gets kidnapped, dad rescues her, that movie?”
“I don’t get it.”
She shakes her head. “God, you’re hopeless. Liam Neeson looks for you, he finds you, and then he kills you…in a manner of speaking, of course.”
Nothing like being rendered cinematically inept by a runway model with boyfriend issues. Clusters of girls start to gather around us, priming to walk down the runway. I push my hair away from my face and say, “Good luck.”
“Yes! That’s exactly how it goes in the movie!”
“I meant with that boyfriend of yours.” I flick the cigarette. “If he’s going to look for you, find you, and kill you…then good luck. He sounds out of his mind.”
Her eyes, the color of celery, take on a far-off, miserable look. Her mouth wrinkles, maybe because her boyfriend isn’t out of his mind, or maybe because he is. She lights up another cigarette.
The director yells over the music. “Why aren’t you girls in line?”
I stub my cigarette out and rush toward the lineup like a schoolgirl from math to lunch.
“You’ll be modeling five pieces,” he tells me. “Opening outfit is important, darling. So…make me a happy man.” He strokes my arm ever so sinfully. “All right ladies, here we go…five, four, three, two, one—” I am spanked as he says, “go, Sophie, go!”
THE AFTER PARTY is glitzed up by trendy fashionistas—distinctively young, well-dressed, with bubbly beverages in hand. Between the dull and droning conversations about how wonderful the show had been, how great I was in it, and how spectacular I looked, I begin to zone out.
“Excuse me,” I tell the crowd bunched around me. I’m yearning for meaning in this crushing sea of meaningless babble. Since I was a little girl, I learned how to work a crowd—smile, compliment, and look interested. My mother insisted I develop a personality. “People with good personalities go to well-paid places, Sophie,” she would say. Look at where that got me, mother. If she were alive, she’d soon be dead from hearing me say that. Now, I’m a chameleon of personalities, adapting my skin to the environment. When faced with having to mingle with a multitude of people, I will call upon my more outgoing alter ego and engage in the foreplay of current topics. But I hardly ever enjoy it.
I give up on finding any type of real conversation and slip out of the party. On my way out of the hotel, I fling on a raincoat and press a black trilby hat on my head. I edge my way around puddles and keep an eye open for any cab with its light on. Daylight falls through the thick wall of trees. Rain continues to play havoc, pelting me all over. Leaves separate from their perches, being pushed and shoved with every bulleting raindrop.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a shadow of movement. I freeze up. I look around. Tires screech to a halt. My pulse hammers as a van whizzes by me and stops at the curb with only an inch to spare. A man in a hood wearing a full-face black mask flings the side door wide and scrambles out of the van. I’m numbed by panic, chilled, my heart throbbing with fear. I think about the threat I received today and all the rest I’ve been ignoring. One by one, rapid flash-card images race through my mind.
The masked man is on me in a blur and slides one arm around my neck. His other hand slaps roughly over my mouth. Between muffled grunts and agitated maneuvers, my hat flies off my head and it occurs to me he may have the element of surprise, but I have the element of teeth. Fight instincts replace panic completely and it’s game on.
He breaks out in a loud bellow when I bite his bony hand as hard as I can. He seizes a fistful of my hair and yanks. I grip his wrist, trying to pull him off, and plunge my stiletto heel into the side of his shoe. It doesn’t make him drop on his knees, but at least it distracts him.
I could’ve run; I should’ve run, but instead I bend my knees, pivot my hips, and clench my fists up next to my chest. The Mask looks at my demeanor and laughs. I shift my weight and thrust my foot straight into his stomach, sending him crashing back against the van. He’s not laughing anymore. He swings a fist at me and I squat down, but he strikes my chin with an uppercut. Another punch sinks into my flesh below my bellybutton. I curl into a ball as he knocks the breath out of me. My mouth falls open and I begin to cough.
One minute I’m making significant progress, the next he’s wrapping his broomstick arms around my waist again, pressing my back against his chest, and dragging me backward. Everything happens so fast.
This is it. He’s going to take me. Who was I kidding? I can feel myself tiring quickly as I try to twist out of his tight grip.
I glimpse a second man in a suit step up. I can’t fight off two men. I hear a shout. I freeze again, or panic, or both. The Mask gives me a hard push forward and jumps back inside the van. I groan as I ram into the second man—my chest to his—toppling us both onto the pavement. It is a heck of a fall.
“Are you okay?” he says over the rain, with such a deep, gravelly voice.
My long hair dangles like a curtain of wet silk on the man’s face, obscuring what little he can see. Heavy raindrops cling to my lashes, stream down my face, moisten my lips, and trickle down my neck. Here I am, half-kidnapped, at a loss for words, hovering over a man in cold rainwater that has the sewers overflowing, and it doesn’t occur to me to get up. But he is just as bold as I am because he’s suddenly touching my face like he’s making sure I’m still on this earth, then pushing my hair back with his hand. I nearly falter.
My forehead creases. I mean to say, “Yeah. I think so,” but I don’t. I take one brief look at him and my breath hitches in my chest. I scramble to get off him. Halfway on my toes, I skid and fall on my back. I scurry on my backside, pushing with my hands and feet, until I’m completely away from his chest.
He props up on his elbows. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I hear a smidgen of honesty in his voice, and he probably sees the terror in my face, but my body has already made up its mind. I push up from the ground and flee as quickly as my stilettos will allow.
END OF SAMPLE CHAPTER
Copyright © 2015 Elisa Marie Hopkins. All rights reserved.